How The Media Abandoned Louisiana

August 24, 2016

In Louisiana, we’ve got chips on our shoulders against the rest of America. The recent flooding in Baton Rouge is just the latest reminder why it’s warranted.

In the past week, at least 13 people have died and tens of thousands have been evacuated from around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Somewhere around 40,000 homes have been destroyed. People were stranded on highways, waded through chest-deep water filled with venomous snakes, and escaped their flooded houses by floating on mattresses. Nearly a third of the state has been declared a disaster area.

The Louisiana floods were America’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy according to the Red Cross, but for Sandy the media hyped the storm endlessly before it hit. The New York Times created a digital landing page, with hundreds of posts about lines for gas, available local services, and graphics showing the damage.

For Louisiana, there was nothing. People woke up with water in their homes.

At the beginning, on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 12 and 13, if you didn’t live in Louisiana, you probably hadn’t heard about the flood. The disaster didn’t make it onto cable news and wasn’t front-page material. As someone who grew up in Baton Rouge, I wasn’t shocked.

“In Louisiana, there’s a gnawing sense that the national media seems wholly uninterested in this disaster,” Sean Illing, a Louisianian, wrote in Salon. “Media coverage scales with location,” Illing told me, pointing out that human suffering in Louisiana doesn’t fit any natural narrative. It’s just suffering, and apparently pointless suffering isn’t sexy when it’s outside of the tri-state area.

After Illing’s piece, there were national media recriminations. “Many readers have expressed disappointment in the coverage,” wrote Liz Spayd, the New York Times’ public editor, criticizing the Times’ lack of staff-written stories. “The Times’s performance seems particularly weak.”

Starting a few days later, outlets did start covering it. Unfortunately, the coverage has been dominated by disaster porn (pictures of coffins floating down the street) orstories capitalizing on decrying a lack of coverage. The tragedy wasn’t enough of a selling point—it’s the media conspiracy that gets people to care.

Because we’re Louisiana, people just assume we’re going to flood. One football field of land disappears from Louisiana’s coast every hour. Why rebuild again when the entire state is sinking?

If we must blame something for this flood, we should direct our blame at climate change. According to the National Weather Service, there was only a 0.1 percent chance of this flood according to historical models. This storm shouldn’t have happened. Many of the homes that were destroyed weren’t in a flood zone. (Unlike in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, where the flooding was well-predicted.)

But this won’t be the last unexpected extreme weather event Louisiana will face as the Earth warms. Critics will use this as one more reason to give up on the state. And they’ll use the inevitable next disaster too.

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